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Are Unmarked Police Cars Legal?

By Aditi Mukherji, JD | Last updated on

Unmarked police cars are used for a variety of traffic law enforcement purposes, ranging from catching drivers committing violations to promoting traffic safety.

But are unmarked police cars legal?

The answer may depend on factors such as which state you're in, what time of day it is, and what the unmarked vehicle is being used for.

Common Uses

Generally speaking, a police car is considered unmarked if it doesn't have fixed, visible flashing lights, a siren that emits a loud signal, or prominent markings that identify it as a police vehicle.

In many states, unmarked police cars are regularly used for the routine stopping of drivers for traffic violations like speeding. In New York, for example, unmarked state police SUVs are now being used to catch texting drivers.

Police officers also use unmarked cars to stop drivers suspected of a penal law violation or whose behavior presents a threat to public safety.


In some states, however, police officers in unmarked cars have specific rules they must follow. These differ from the rules for other police vehicles, both at the state and city levels.

"The troopers that are issued unmarked cars are given extra instructions on just that thing," a veteran trooper with the Iowa State Patrol told USA Today. Such special restrictions may include only using the unmarked cars during daylight hours.

Other states like New York place few, if any, restrictions on the use of unmarked police cars. States like Ohio, on the other hand, require all police vehicles to be "marked in some distinctive manner" and equipped with a flashing or rotating colored light.


One of the major concerns about the use of unmarked police cars for routine traffic stops is, ironically, safety.

The use of unmarked cars for traffic stops has produced unintended, and quite tragic, results. A number of cases have cropped up of criminals posing as policemen in unmarked cars.

In Mississippi, for example, two people in separate incidents last year were gunned down on state highways by police impersonators. The criminal used fake unmarked police cars to pull over the unsuspecting victims.

The growing fear of fake unmarked cars being used to victimize drivers has inspired a groundswell of support in favor of restricting officers from using unmarked police cars to make traffic stops for routine offenses.

To find some middle ground, a proposed bill in Maryland would make it a crime in the state to flee unmarked police vehicles, but would allow people to continue driving until they reach a police station or a well-lit area.

State laws on unmarked police cars vary. To learn more about the law in your area, you may want to consult with an experienced traffic law attorney near you.

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